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Avoir de la moutarde qui monte au nez.
French idiom. Literal translation: “Mustard is running up my nose.” Common meaning: “I am really pissed off.”
Somewhere in food heaven, two pieces of white bread and a slice of bologna lie on a sun-drenched beach. “I miss yellow,” sighs the bologna, pausing to sip from a can of Tab. “Yes,” concurs the white bread. “It’s just not the same without him.”
Suddenly, as if scripted, a towering yellow figure steps between the sun and the obsolete foodstuffs, enveloping them in its shadow. The barrel chest and pointy head are unmistakable. “Aw, be quiet, you two,” says the yellow squeeze-bottle through his crusty quarter-inch dispensing orifice. “I’m one of you, now.”
“What?” blubbers the bologna. “We thought you still mustered quite a following down there.”
“Afraid not,” yellow replies, the vinegar evident in his voice. “And that’s the straight Poup.”
Aug. 2 may have been National Mustard Day, but few yellow-mustard lovers could be spotted among the revelers. Because in Washington’s increasingly sophisticated dining scene, there’s little counter space left for yellow mustard or its devotees. Gourmet mustards, the broad-shouldered darlings of today’s culinary elite, have taken over much of yellow’s old turf.
Not since salsa awoke from its siesta in the 1980s and scared the tomatoes out of the ketchup industry has there been such a battle between condiments. In that fight, salsa ended up winning the sales war, but ketchup held its privileged spot beside the salt and pepper shakers.
Yellow mustard has not fared as well as its ruddy cousin. Though it continues to sell well at grocery stores and ballparks, local restaurateurs and patrons have mellowed on yellow in favor of spicier, grittier, and more pungent mustards. So much so that a growing number of eateries here have not only yanked yellow off the checkered tablecloth but banished it from their pantries.
We’re not just talking about the very finest restaurants, either. Ask for yellow mustard at chow houses like Rumors or bars like Planet Fred and see for yourself. Or visit your local McDonald’s. Hopefully, you won’t wait five minutes for the cashier to return with a dish with some yellow knifed onto it, as I did.
It has almost gotten so a person can’t go out and grab a turkey sandwich in Washington without fear that some hairy puckerfest of a mustard will be slathered all over it.
And few things make mustard run up my nose quicker than that.
Not every eatery in every Washington neighborhood has exorcised yellow mustard from its menu. Some places continue to offer yellow for customers who prefer their mustard defanged and declawed. A precious few even have the courage to defend their choice publicly. “All those other people are going upscale,” shouts Madam’s Organ owner Bill Duggan. “We’re proud that we can still serve shitty mustard!”
But a quick tour of Adams Morgan’s trendy 18th Street corridor will quickly disabuse you of any overconfidence. Ask for mustard with your sandwich at Franklyn’s Coffeehouse Cafe, for example, and you will get either a blend of two gourmet brands, or a straight Dijonbut not yellow. Belmont Kitchen and Crush serve only Maille, a hot and spicy French import. Tom Tom and Jolt ‘N Bolt Coffee & Tea House exclusively serve Gulden’s Spicy Brown. Dupont Market and Avignone Freres (around the corner from 18th Street) just stock Grey Poupon Dijon. Angles Bar & Billiards also stocks Poupon, though according to bartender Sean Coppie, “we have yellow for backup, just in emergency situations.” Hung right next to the fire extinguisher, one supposes.
Millie & Al’s is one of Adams Morgan’s oldest and least pretentious pubs. It feels like a time capsule buried under generations of trendy topsoil. Accordingly, its customers get bottles of yellow mustard with their burgers. Even in these humble surroundings, however, the dark forces of fancy mustard have made inroads: Bartender Netta Nicholas hides her own bottle of Grey Poupon Dijon behind the bar. “Try it in your deviled eggs,” she yells across the room as I exit.
Even the Safeway on Columbia Road reflects gourmet mustard’s penetration. There, brand names like Maille, Dessaux Amora, Inglehoffer, and Grey Poupon occupy some two-thirds of the mustard shelf space.
It would be nice if we could identify a single, malevolent culprit behind the disappearance of yellow mustard. But only in detective novels and political ads is evil so easily pinpointed.
At least one finger can be pointed at Grey Poupon. The company’s legendary Rolls-Royce TV ads “virtually created the [Poupon] brand, as well as the entire market,” toots Michael Drazin, rep for one of two firms behind the campaign. Poupon’s spots had one additional effect. Their tag line, “Pardon me, would you have some Grey Poupon?” finally gave Washington promgoers something wittier to yell out their limousine windows than, “I think I’m gonna throw up.”
But consumer awareness is not necessarily enough to make people buy a product. (Hold on a second while I crack open a Zima.) Fortunately for Grey Poupon, Americans were in the midst of a dietary and culinary transformation when the brand’s TV spots first appeared.
For example, vegetarianism “has had a big effect on the type of dressing we put on sandwiches,” says Jolt ‘N Bolt co-owner Erny McBride. Veggie sandwiches tend to be blander, he argues, and therefore demand more flavor, a role spicy mustard can readily fill.
Health consciousness has had a similar impact. Concern over fat, cholesterol, and calories has led many people to decrease their consumption of high-fat chow like burgers, hot dogs, and bolognatraditionally our most yellow-friendly foods.
Poupon and other fancy mustards have gotten a lot of mileage out of the haute cuisine trend. “The American palate has become increasingly more gourmet,” says Grey Poupon spokesman John Barrows. “When I was a kid, you asked for mustard and you got yellow mustard.” But today, he says, “people are demanding more of a variety of flavors.”
Barrows knows what he is talking about. Take a peek at the cover story in the Washington Post’s July 2 Food section on the lowly sausage. “Even sausages are more complicated nowadays,” writes Carole Sugarman. “These haute hot dogs [are] flavored with such ingredients as sun-dried tomatoes, wild mushrooms, basil, pine nuts, apples, even Chardonnay.” Next month: Curried Twinkies.
Local law clerk Glenn Nadaner has his own take on the mustard trend. “Right now, everyone wants the best,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s coffee, bread, beer, or whiskey.” Indeed, a growing number of Washingtonians are eschewing rotgut for single-malt scotch, Budweiser for microbrewed beer, Marlboros for Cubans, and burgers for prime rib. It is as if we’re searching, Nadaner says, “for the elegance of a bygone era.”
Grey Poupon’s claim of a European pedigree has helped its cause with America’s new epicures. When Poupon first began to advertise on TV, recalls spokesman Barrows, “anything that came from France was considered to be the best.” The company still draws on the history of France’s Grey Poupon company, founded in 1777 by Messrs. Grey and Poupon.
It’s mostly a fabrication. America’s Grey Poupon company was founded in 1946, not 1777. It merely licenses the Grey Poupon name from the French. Even the recipes differ. “I’ve never had [the French version],” explains Barrows, “but I’ve been told it’s hotter and spicier.” Poupon is based in East Hanover, N.J. It’s owned by Nabisco Inc., the $8.9-billion food company that brings you such delights as Double Stuf Oreos, Cheese Nips, Gummi Savers, and Nilla Wafers.
I recently conducted a side-by-side taste test of three top-selling mustards: Grey Poupon Country Dijon, Gulden’s Spicy Brown, and French’s Classic Yellow. I ate a half sandwich with each mustard and also tried each straight. My ear-nose-and-throat doctor says I should recover fully by next week.
Grey Poupon came first, and it was nothing short of overwhelming. Its horseradishy fumes carried so boldly up my nasal passages that I thought the sandwich might follow. I could barely taste the turkey under the mustard. On the bright side, the Poupon did make me feel alive. Like I could crush a puppy.
Maybe the trick to tolerating Poupon is to obliterate your taste buds firstsay, by smoking a couple of Cuban cigars and washing them down with a few of those stylish dry martinis. I wouldn’t know.
Next came Gulden’s Spicy Brown. It was even more objectionable. For one thing, its flavor was weak; at least Poupon had guts. I also was spooked by Gulden’s ultracreamy texture. It felt as if someone had added a couple of lukewarm raw eggs and a spot of mayo to the mix, then whipped it all up at around 20,000 RPM.
I evaluated French’s Classic Yellow last, and did my best to remain objective. It was not difficult. In fact, I discovered that no mustard tastes good eaten straight off the spoon. French’s texture was watery. Its extremely vinegary taste placed it somewhere between Gulden’s and Grey Poupon in terms of strength. As someone who is partial to “natural” foods, I found French’s seedlessness, neon-yellow tincture, and apparent overprocessing less than optimal.
But I do not eat yellow mustard for aesthetic reasons. I eat it because it is familiar, a reminder of baseball, barbecues, and youth. I eat it because it feels safe and rooted in the past. Yellow is America. Or was.
Grey Poupon is not satisfied with just an upscale clientele. The company wants to bring untapped marketsparticularly kids and middle-class folkinto the gourmet fold. To capture sweet-toothed youths, Poupon introduced a new mustard, Honey Dijon, and a new TV ad campaign to promote it.
Poupon didn’t bother creating a new mustard to tempt the middle class. The company just stuck some Dijon in a squeeze bottle, resurrected the old-man-in the-Rolls-Royce scenario for the umpteenth time, and added a fart joke. “Pardon me!” says the old man to a disgusted chauffeur, moments after his squeeze bottle hits an air pocket. According to Poupon rep Barrows, the commercial showed that “you don’t have to be as rich as a guy in a Rolls-Royce to appreciate Grey Poupon.”
With Grey Poupon zeroing in on yellow’s key markets, you have to wonder how long the yellow stalwarts like Millie & Al’s or Madam’s Organ can hold out.
But there are signs yellow may stage a revival.
“I think [yellow is] gonna make a comeback,” says Barry Levenson, founder of Wisconsin’s Mount Horeb Mustard Museum and a certified mustard guru. “I think it’s gonna become retro food.” Short-term statistics might bear him out. In a recent 12-month period, grocery-store sales of Grey Poupon’s mustard line fell 13 percent nationwide, and Gulden’s dropped 3 percent. Meanwhile, sales of French’s mustard grew 7 percent. Even Barrows admits that “yellow is still king.”
I’m not interested in seeing Grey Poupon or any other gourmet mustard stripped off Washington’s grocery shelves or bar rails. I just hope more Washington restaurateurs will begin to see things the way Twan Bridges does.
“I think we would lose some business if we didn’t offer a variety of mustards,” says Bridges, assistant general manager at Lawson’s Gourmet Provisions in Dupont Circle. Sandwichmakers at the upscale deli and grocery let customers choose between yellow mustard and a variety of upscale brands. Says Bridges, “People want a choice.”
That, ladies and gentlemen, is mustard to